Atomic Blonde plays like a spoof of spy movies, but not in a traditional way like an Austin Powers movie would be, laden with jokes and gags and genuine laughs—but instead, more like a satirical take on the oftentimes ludicrous plot at the center of most spy movies.
I might not be the ideal audience in mind for this movie, I guess is what I’m getting at. To me, the plot existed specifically to be a confusing mess that never really engaged me.
Basic plot overview, to the best of my abilities: Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, who is brought in to Berlin right at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, after the death of her lover, to help sneak a man out of the city who has a photographic memory and has memorized a valuable list. James McAvoy is there to assist her. Sofia Boutella plays a French spy and she and Lorraine end up having lots of sexy lesbian sex under fluorescent lights.
Because this is a spy movie, no one is who they seem to be, no one can be trusted, and there are double-and-triple-crosses galore. Some events seem to happen just to happen, characters revealing duplicitous intentions just for the purpose of creating drama and plot-related complications.
Are the fight scenes cool? Yes, very. They are well-choreographed, exciting and look brutal and real. The action sequences in this film are some of the best you’re going to see anywhere this year. There is no obnoxious rapid-cutting, like in some of the lamer Michael Bay rip-offs. This is a solid action vehicle with incredible stunts and seamless special effects, particularly in one long-take that goes through a stairwell fight scene and into an exhilarating car chase sequence, all with the illusion of no edits being made to the shot.
The movie itself is effortlessly cool, if not a bit smug in knowing so. The movie knows that it’s cool, which is part of what kills its charm. It’s a little too arrogant when it throws on some catchy 80s New Wave song in order to kill time between one scene to the next. The movie looks great and it sounds great, but there’s an unearned pompousness the movie has, a too-cool-for-school type mentality that makes me think of it less as a Quentin Tarantino riff and more like one of the Pulp Fiction-esque clones that came out in the 90s. The best way to differentiate Pulp Fiction and its imitators was that Pulp Fiction had heart and cared about its characters. Atomic Blonde doesn’t really seem to be bothered with anything other than spectacle.
If I’m being a little harsh on Atomic Blonde, it’s because there was much squandered promise. Atomic Blonde is an exciting, sexy movie with a killer soundtrack, but it’s totally vapid and empty… a wasted opportunity. Everyone in the cast is doing their absolute best: Charlize Theron can do a movie like this in her sleep, but she’s giving it her all. John Goodman does a lot with a little and adds a lot of charm to his scenes at the American in the interrogation room framing device that the movie keeps cutting back to in order to catch its breath. The movie has so much going for it that it’s a damned shame that the script is satisfied with cardboard cutout characters and unengaging dialogue. As cool as the stairway fight scene was, there was nothing grounding me emotionally in it. Whatever happened, happened, and it looked great. But I had nothing invested in the overall outcome.
I don’t believe every movie needs to have “heart,” whatever that vague sentiment even means. Some movies can simply be cool. They can coast by on their charms. It’s just that Atomic Blonde wasn’t clever or witty enough to do that. What it desperately needed was a story and characters to care about, but instead it relied on thirty-year-old pop hits and bloody action to suffice, as some sort of stylistic crutch.